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'Woman Soul': A photo exhibit of Filipina transsexuals

in PHILIPPINES, 11/04/2011

French journalist Sebastien Farcis and photographer Romaine Rivierre, in a team-up with Alliance Française de Manille and the United Nations Development Program, recently launched a photo exhibit on Filipina transsexuals called “Woman Soul.”

“Woman Soul” is a multi-sensory exhibit that features the images and voices of transsexuals in the country. It takes the viewer and listener through the lives of the women as they affirm their sexual identity, despite the rejection and discrimination of family and society. Among them are Bemz Benedito, Rica Paras, Sass Rogando Sasot and an entertainer named Britney.

Bemz Benedito is the new chairperson of LADLAD (Coming Out) Party List, a national organization of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Filipinos. She was its number-one nominee for the May 2010 elections, which LADLAD narrowly lost by 20,000 votes.

She completed a master’s degree in sociology at the Ateneo de Manila University, and was a researcher working in the same university when she experienced sexual harassment from a foreign consultant. Being a transgender, she had difficulty getting legal protection and retribution — until LADLAD helped her.

She said, “If I were raped by a man, I couldn’t file a complaint because I’m still legally considered a man, and same-sex rape does not exist. I want to help revise these laws for them to include transgenders, gays, and lesbians.”

This traumatic experience taught her the importance of having legal protection for any gay or transsexual person. In May 2010, she was the first transsexual person to run for a congressional seat in the country. The main platform of LADLAD is the passage of the anti-discrimination bill, which has been lingering in Congress for a decade.

Rica Paras is an information and technology consultant for Hewlett-Packard Philippines and a leading advocate for transsexual rights.

Smart and elegant, Rica managed to break the ceiling of discrimination, thanks to an extraordinary confidence in her talents and skills. A graduate of mathematics from the Ateneo de Manila University, she is now traveling around Asia and Europe to implement strategic technological changes in big corporations.

She said, “I just make sure that I’m confident when I face people. So even if they are harsh on me, I can stand up to them and to what they’re saying.” She is a successful example of a transsexual who has worked as an executive for a multinational company in Makati. A celebrity in her own right, she has appeared in Pinoy Big Brother, a popular syndicated show. She is also the vice-chairwoman of the Society of Transsexual Women in the Philippines (STRAP).

Sass Rogando Sasot is a co-founder of the Society of Transsexual Women in the Philippines (STRAP). She said, “There is a medical basis for transsexualism. We don’t only need a change of law; we need a change of minds.“

From a young age, she felt that the sex assigned to her at birth didn’t match with her own sexual identity. But when she started dressing as a woman, she faced rejection from both her family and the Catholic high school where she was studying. She eventually managed to overcome the despair she was pushed into by starting the first transsexual movement in the Philippines. As a testament to her success, she has recently made a moving speech in front of a United Nations permanent mission which was gathered on Human Rights Day, to testify on the ongoing discrimination of people based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

Britney is a dancer at Club Mwah, one of the most popular cabarets in Manila where all the performers are transgendered women. She said, “It’s much easier to live in Japan as a transgender because there is no discrimination. They respect you as a real girl.”

While backstage at the club with her “transgender family,” Britney added that like so many transgendered people, she went to work in Japan. She found not only a better income, but also a more accepting society where people didn’t discriminate against her for being a transsexual. Britney feels the need for an anti-discrimination law in the Philippines to protect her.

Co-organizer Sebastien Farcis said, “We call these transsexuals lady boys, bading, bakla and we stereotype them as dancers and entertainers. But what if we start looking at who they really are? What if we start listening to them? We would then discover that transsexual women in the Philippines are different from the usual cliché. We must listen to their stories, because only knowledge stops discrimination.” Alliance Française director Stephane Doutrelant gave the welcome remarks, saying the door of Alliance is open to exhibits such as this that highlight equality and human rights.

UNDP country director Renaud Meyer said, “March 8 marks the global celebration of Women’s Day. People from across the world commemorate their struggles with the call to ‘Equal access to education, training, and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women,’ with emphasis on the word ‘decent.’ Transsexual women, vis-à-vis the larger lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, have their fair share of struggles as well, and, too, have long been clamoring for equal rights.

“In line with our thrusts to achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, particularly MDG 6 (i.e., to halt and reverse the spread of HIV/AIDS), we are calling for an enabling environment that would help facilitate access to HIV services by MSM and transgender people. Aligned with the creation of an enabling environment, we support legislations that would help eliminate stigma and discrimination among the LGBT community, such as the Anti-Discrimination Bill.

“Therefore, UNDP will be supporting the tour of this exhibit to Congress, other cities (i.e., Cebu and Davao) and settings (i.e., schools and communities) to generate awareness on the stigma and discrimination being suffered by the LGBT community, and leverage the needed support for the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Bill and/or ordinances and the fight for equal rights for the LGBT people.”

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